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WiFi Roaming: Going Global

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
2/23/2007

When I spoke recently with Michael Gebert, director of marketing for WeRoam , he was coming to me from a McDonald's outside Munich, Germany, speaking over his mobile phone using a WiFi connection to his Skype VOIP service. It was the perfect setting to talk about WeRoam's expanding network of some 25,000 hotspots across Europe and its flourishing relationship with U.S. WiFi provider Wayport Inc.

A brand name of Swiss networking provider Comfone, itself a joint venture between Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) and Swisscom AG (NYSE: SCM), WeRoam was established in 2001 as a hotspot aggregator to give European mobile operators a way to offer roaming WiFi services to their existing customers. "We saw this need of GSM operators or wireless ISPs to give their customers or enterprise users access to WiFi networks on a global scale," Gebert explains. "The idea is to advance open roaming, whether pre- or post-paid, using existing gateways. Most of the GSM operators are aware of this tremendous opportunity for coverage on an international scale."

That scale made WeRoam a natural partner when Austin-based Wayport, which now offers WiFi connections in more than 13,000 locations worldwide (including Mickey D's as well as upscale hotel chains such as Wyndham and Hilton), went looking to boost its coverage in Western Europe a little over two years ago. (See Hands-Free on Turtle Creek.)

"WeRoam has done a good job in building relationships over in Europe," says Wayport vice president of marketing Dan Lowden. "Once we build a network we're a neutral host, we allow everybody access to the network. So we have roaming relationships with a lot of different companies, and we're always looking to strengthen those relationships.

"WeRoam is very important because they're based in Europe, and they in turn have a lot of relationships with the carriers there. So they're providing coverage and connectivity for Euro carriers' customers as they travel around the world."

Together, Wayport and WeRoam are proving that there's life for WiFi hotspot providers even in the age of spreading municipal, WiMax, and EV-DO networks. The latest fruit of this relationship is a partnership to provide WiFi connections at Hertz Rental Car locations in 39 of the biggest airports in the U.S. WeRoam customers traveling to the U.S. will now have high-speed Internet access at the car-rental sites, in addition to existing Wayport locations such as hotels and airports.

The spread of WeRoam's offerings benefits not only users but the European GSM service providers, who risk losing customers to aggressive VOIP providers, wireless ISPs, and other new market entrants vying to offer mobile high-speed access.

"Our service is the ideal complement for expanding services to WiFi for GSM-compliant solutions," explains Gebert. While the Euro service providers may lose revenue when users make calls over WiFi-enabled VOIP lines, they've realized that expanding their services is crucial to retaining their existing customer bases.

"At first the approach for GSM operators was, 'We're losing tremendous revenue here,'" says Gebert. "But then they saw, well, maybe we lose on the side of voice calls, but we get additional revenue on the side of the existing network usage.

"The major critical belief is that they have their existing customer base, and they need to take care of those."

That means that users in both North America and Europe will continue to demand a wider buffet of offerings from their primary service providers, regardless of whether they're by the hotel pool, picking up their rental car at a Hertz Gold site, or stopping in at a burger joint.

"And now," Gebert announced, "I am going to go have a Quarter-Pounder."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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